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In managing the Phillies, can Joe Girardi avoid burning up in his own flame? | Mike Sielski

Girardi’s decade with the Yankees featured a World Series victory and six playoff berths. But at times, it was clear the stress of the job got to him.

New Phillies manager Joe Girardi talks to reporters minutes after a press conference at Citizens Bank Park on Monday.
New Phillies manager Joe Girardi talks to reporters minutes after a press conference at Citizens Bank Park on Monday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Instead of the windowless room where their managers usually hold their postgame news conferences, the Phillies introduced Joe Girardi on Monday at Pass and Stow, the sports pub attached to Citizens Bank Park — a far better setting to convey the message that his hiring constituted a fresh, clean start. Sunlight from a warm fall afternoon flooded through tall windows. Rhys Hoskins and Larry Bowa stood near the bar. General manager Matt Klentak sat at a table next to Girardi, but managing partner John Middleton and team president Andy MacPhail didn’t attend the event, a sure sign that the Phillies were in no mood for questions about the franchise’s chain of command.

Then Girardi himself began to speak, and the contrast between him and his predecessor, Gabe Kapler, became practically tangible. Over Kapler’s two years with the Phillies, his public remarks were frequently as great a source of consternation and dissatisfaction as his softer hand with the clubhouse and decision-making were. We love our press conferences here in Philadelphia, and if Kapler wasn’t accenting out all the unseen bright spots in a lopsided loss, he was projecting an image — and perhaps a core philosophy — that no one game was any more important than another, that all would be well over the long haul if the Phillies just stayed loose and kept at it.

Girardi has never been inclined to approach managing that way, and it was one of the reasons that the Phillies targeted and hired him. It wasn’t merely that he had 11 years of major-league managerial experience. It was that 10 of those years were in New York with the Yankees. No North American sports franchise is under a hotter spotlight, is the subject of more competitive media scrutiny. And though Girardi won a World Series and shepherded the Yankees to six playoff appearances, though he handled those demands and expectations well in the aggregate, there were moments when it appeared his slow burn would consume him.

“The baseball season is long, so I think any year, by the time you get to the end, just like the players, people start getting tired,” his wife, Kim, said. “At times over the years, Joe probably felt tired toward the end of the year. But getting so close and going so far and having that kind of letdown, that’s always difficult. Like Joe said, he is always about winning.”

He used intensity to deal with the intensity. He bore down. He would shed enough weight over the regular season and postseason that it became noticeable. To cover him, even briefly, during his early years as the Yankees manager was to believe that if you handed him a lump of coal at the beginning of a meeting with the media, he would have squeezed it into a diamond by the end. He wore the stress. It was there for everyone to see, and if Kapler’s approach and demeanor represented one end of the pendulum’s swing, might Girardi go too far the other way? Not for the players necessarily, but for himself?

“There are a couple of ways to look at it,” Girardi said. “A lot of people say I am extremely intense. Yeah, that might be right. But I’m focused. I’m focused on the job always at hand. I think there’s something you can do when the media’s an outlet. You can send messages to your fans, the sort of thing I think is important. …

“I grew up playing against the Phillies, managing against the Phillies, and I understand how important it is here. And I’m not just going to give you things on a whim. I’m going to be extremely honest with you, and I don’t play favorites. I don’t do as much storytelling as other managers, but I’m going to tell you the truth all the time.”

That surely sounds like sweet music to people here, to those who want unfiltered honesty at all times, who want assurances that their coaches and athletes bleed and suffer and dwell over losses and missed opportunities as much as they do. In this case, the Phillies themselves probably need just such a man to manage them. They probably need the structure that Girardi should provide and the sense that he has always given off — that he is always thinking and planning and weighing, that every decision has import, that something is smoldering inside him.

“If the intensity’s real, which it is with Joe, I don’t think you have to worry about burning out,” said Bowa, who managed the Phillies from 2001 to 2004. “The players are going to get the message the very first meeting how important it is to win. That very first meeting is very important, especially when you’re going from one end of the spectrum to the other. Gabe was a great guy, and he was a lot more relaxed at the park. I’m sure he was just as intense when the game started, but he was more relaxed before the game started. Joe and I, as soon as I walked into the clubhouse, I was ready to go, and I’m sure he is, too.”

He seemed at ease Monday, but Monday was the easy part. Monday was happiness and satisfaction and relief to be managing again. Monday was not a 5-4 loss in July, when he makes an either-or decision about a pitcher and the bullpen fails and the questions begin and the justifications are sought and the pressure feels like bricks stacked on your back. The only solution then will be the same one that eluded Gabe Kapler too often during his tenure here, the same one that lightens every burden and snuffs out every self-started fire. Just win, Joe. Just win.